At first, Sherlock season 4 started with the gang happier than ever. But that sure didn’t last long. Spoiler alert for those who have not seen “The Six Thatchers”: The premiere concluded with Mary Watson (Amanda Abbington) being shot and killed, taking a bullet to save the life of Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch), much to the anguish of John (Martin Freeman). Below we speak to showrunner Steven Moffat about the major death and how it changes Sherlock moving forward.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Just so fans don’t misinterpret that ending … Mary’s really dead right?
Steven Moffat: Yes, we’re not playing games. She’s dead.
What made you decide to get rid of Mary? She died in Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, but the cause of death was never even mentioned…
The truth is it’s never established that she died in the stories. We just assume she died because Watson refers to his “sad loss” which is probably a death but not necessarily. The reality of this, of course, is that Sherlock Holmes is about Sherlock and Dr. Watson and it’s always going to come back to that — always always always. They had fun making it a trio but it doesn’t work long term. Mary was always going to go and we were always going to get back to the two blokes. That’s the format. [Sherlock writer-producer-actor] Mark Gatiss and I do not have the delusion that we know better than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. That’s how the show works and always will. We reset to the most traditional and famous version of the format.
I like your use of the death fable early on and aquarium water you’d overlay into a few shots. There was also the black sharks that comprised Baby Watson’s mobile. It was all a great way of foreshadowing to the ending and undercutting the happy optimism leading up to it.
It was a proper problem Mark and I talked about a lot. We knew where we were going but wanted to bring it back with a proper adventure for the boys. But if you just turned dark at the end that would feel like a cheat. You have to feel like you were warned and then forgot the warning. Twists only work if you have a fair chance to work it out. A dark turn in a show only works if you were sort of warned but preferred not to listen.
What made Mary decide to take a bullet for Sherlock?
Well, she saved her friend. There wasn’t a lot of time to do anything about it. Throughout the episode, she’s really quite protective of them. She’s actually better at all this than they are. She regards them as a couple of talented amateurs. She doesn’t make a huge decision about it, she does what she can with no time to think.
Her postmortem message said “Save John,” meaning protect him from being lost without her?
Yes, you can assume we’re going to elaborate on that next week.
Watson made such an agonizing wail during that scene, and of course, Freeman and Abbington were partners in real life (and recently announced they’re separating). What was it like to shoot that?
It was emotional, but at the same time, we did that scene a million times. There was a sense this was a hugely important moment in a show we’ve been making all this time and it was Amanda’s exit from a show that she’s been part of for a few years. So it was a big deal.
You said this will “reset” the relationship between Sherlock and Watson, but this seems like a rift that can never fully heal.
We take that rift head-on in the remainder of the [season]. We don’t ignore it. We don’t have John come back and say, “Well I’ve thought about it and it’s all fine.” If anything, the rift gets worse. We decided if we were doing this we’re doing grief properly. We were doing the consequences properly. We tried to have people go through what they’d actually go through in this circumstance which, of course, is hellish. And as emotionally reticent as Sherlock Holmes is, it doesn’t take a 12-year-old to figure out he’s a profoundly emotional man. We don’t skirt around it. We don’t just get on with the story of the week — although there is a story of the week. There’s a big villain to fight. But front and center are the consequence of Mary’s death and Sherlock’s culpability. He could have done better, it’s his lifestyle that killed her in the end.
It was interesting because very clearly that whole situation could have been wrapped up without bloodshed had Sherlock not kept egging her on in that moment.
We spent a long time trying to work out what his culpability was. Obviously, it wasn’t his fault. Mary tried to save his life. But having Sherlock unable to stop himself from showing off and that’s what riles her up to take the shot, I think it adds another layer. We were determined to make it as difficult for us as possible [as writers] to take on the following things: We will do grief in a big way, we will have the rift between them, and it will be real and will never completely go away — because you’ll always think about that, however imperishable that friendship is. At the same time, we’ve got to be a proper detective show with proper action, proper villains, proper mystery solving. We really went for it. There was a big debate about whether to kill her in episode 1, instead of more traditionally in episode 3 at the end of the [season]. But let’s not give ourselves that two years to forget how mad they are at each other. Let’s do it in a circumstance where we have to come back in a week and make this show work again. I think it does. Obviously, I’m not the person who makes the judgment. All the consequences are believable and painfully in place with a Sherlock Holmes plot and with some kind of resolution to it all that makes continuing possible. If we do pull that off that will be great.
Which isn’t to say the rest of the cast is safe for the next two episodes either?
Anything can happen to anyone. I think it’s safe to say we couldn’t do Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson without Holmes and Watson. But nobody’s safe and consequences are everywhere and there’s some emotionally grueling stuff coming. There’s proper humor too. We showed episode 2 to some people and though it’s the darkest one we’ve ever done there were still people laughing.